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The Needle and the Damage Done

Portraits of five current and former injection drug users.

Lauren Waldrop and her husband left North Carolina three years ago to escape family pressures. They live on the street and use heroin together.

 

 

This story is part of our special report on the private tragedies and public toll of our injection drug epidemic. Read more of One City, Under the Syringe here.

 

Eric Gonzalez-Wightman, 51
Occasional heroin user; currently in Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital’s Opiate Treatment Outpatient Program (OTOP, aka Ward 93)

I got bullied at school in Santa Barbara because I was openly gay. And then I would get persecuted and abused and yelled at at home. My mom couldn’t deal with it. She didn’t want a son of hers to be gay. At 15 or 16, I started running away to Hollywood. I tried coke, but I thought drugs were for fucked-up people. 

I applied to the S.F. State creative writing program and got in. I started working as a busboy and bartender at different places on Haight. That’s when I got into speed. I was meeting artistic people and people were doing speed, snorting. Then people started shooting it around me. I got injected with meth the first time by an infamous character named Todd. People warned me, don’t get involved with him, he loves to find little boys like you and spend all of your money.

I got a job at the I-Beam and met my friend Stephen. He and I realized we both wanted to do some heroin. I’m the kind of person, I want to dive in headfirst. Heroin was wonderful. It was like, “This is what I’m looking for.” I became this confident person, like, “La la-la-la, fuck you.” It’s not just physical, it’s mental. If you’re an overweight, unattractive girl, it makes you feel like a 120-pound, six-foot model. It made me feel invincible.

We really escalated after we started. After I got fired from my job, I lived for a few months by selling everything I owned. This is 1991. I was reading a book by John Rechy, City of Night, and I’m thinking, I could do that. I became immersed in the hustling world. I found it fascinating. My corner was Pine and Larkin. The neighbors would call the cops. The cops would say, “Hey, Eric, stop ho-ing! Get your ass inside and quit selling it!” I was getting arrested every day for tricking.

I wasn’t practicing safe sex, but I never got HIV. It’s amazing I’m alive. I would find a needle with clear liquid in it and think, Oh, it’s a hit of speed, and do it. I swear to God I’ve done that. I’ve taken water out of the toilet at BART bathrooms to use to shoot up.

Kicking drugs is the most horrifying thing in the world. You’re all hunched over, like [whimpering], “My legs, my legs”—they have these crampy pains—then you’re like, “I’m super hot, I’m super hot,” then “I’m super cold, I’m super cold,” and you’re throwing up, and you have diarrhea. It’s excruciating mentally. If you’re on the outside, you’re not going to kick, because you will literally go into Walgreens and grab a shelf of things and run out. You’ll beat Queen Elizabeth over the head to get her jewels. And run. You wouldn’t care about the MI5.

In 2005, I was living at the Golden Eagle Hotel on Broadway, near Kearny, and working for a drug dealer. He was Mexican, kind of like family. The dealers are nice guys, they all have families. They have wives and kids. They liked me because I spoke Spanish. I started driving for them, from 10 a.m. to 10 at night. I would get $100 and a bag filled with heroin balloons to deliver.

So I’m driving one day and I’m like, “I don’t want to go back to prison. If I get stopped by a cop, I’m going to prison.” This was 2006, 2007. The main thing was my cat, Lucy. What if I lose my house, who’s going to take care of Lucy? I’d never had anyone love me the way Lucy loved me. This cat just adored me. I’ve never had the love of a parent or a brother or sister or lover, boyfriend, girlfriend—nobody loved me the way this cat loved me. That’s why I have her name tattooed on my neck. So I was like, “I’m not doing this no more.” So one day I just stopped the car on Van Ness, I called my boss, Alejandro, and said, “Hey, your thousand-plus dollars is under the mat. But Alejandro, I still want to be a customer! I’m calling you tonight.”

I’m working part-time now. Sometimes I get hired for like cleanup jobs, the most random shit. I worked for a backpack company for a while assembling backpacks. This is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. I have a great counselor here at OTOP, the resident psychiatrist, she has helped me beyond belief. I mean, I want to get off of methadone and I want to get off of heroin completely someday. There can be times I haven’t used in three months, and then there would be times I’ve been doing it for 30 days straight.

My dream would be to write a book. I think I write like shit, but people say I can write. If people want to laugh at me and make fun of me, that’s fine, I don’t care. For somebody who’s been using for almost 30 years, I’m still alive and relatively healthy—I can still pick up a guy or two every once in a while. My dream would be to get off of it, meet a guy who loves Dulce, my cat, and have a boyfriend, and the book doesn’t have to be a huge hit—but please, I’ve never done one good thing in my life [begins to cry], nothing has ever been successful, nothing except becoming a heroin addict. If I could write one book, they could say, that motherfucker was a total piece of shit, a loser, but at least they could say I wrote a book.

 

Laura, 30
Former heroin user; currently in the OTOP program

Growing up, I’d never taken a pain pill, I never drank alcohol, until I was past high school. I was a straight-A student, I got scholarships to go to college. But I had a lot of trauma in my childhood. It is stuff I still have to work on today. I started off with pills. At 17, I got hurt really badly in a car crash and broke my leg, my ribs, had internal bleeding, and messed up my back. I rode in the rodeo, I was a barrel racer, and got hurt a lot doing that too. I was prescribed pain medication by doctors, hydrocodone or oxycodone. I started out using them correctly. But as my pain got worse, over the months, I found out that I could take two if the pain got really bad, and three, and soon enough I would get prescribed like 90 pills a month, and those were gone in a week.

Then I moved to morphine and Dilaudid, which is morphine in pill form. I’m taking 15 to 20 pills a day, going to hospitals to get them. When the hospitals finally caught on, that’s when the dealers come in. I met a female dealer, and she’s got needles out, and she gets prescriptions for these morphine pills and shows me how to break them down and inject them. I’m like 20, 21 now, and I’m starting to inject morphine pills. And the high from that alone is just remarkable. It’s better than sex. Think about the best orgasm you’ve ever had in your entire life and times it by a million. It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s everything.

At 25, I go through my first real withdrawal. That was the first time I’m like, Fuck, I’m in over my head. I’m living in Las Vegas now. To support my habit I’m working the Vegas Strip, I’m working the streets, I’m robbing people. I was pretending to be a hooker and then I’d rip people off . I would find the drunkest person at the bar, I’d help them up to their rooms, lay them down, ask to use the bathroom, spend five minutes in the bathroom, and then come out. They’re passed out and their wallets are sitting right there.

I had heard about heroin, but God, it had a stigma. Once you were on heroin, oh my God, you’re gonna die from it. But my dealer gets busted again. This time they’re really going away. I’m really sick, nobody I know has pills, and I run into a person who does heroin. And they’re like, “If you’re this sick, just do it.” So I smoke heroin for the first time. Oh my God. It was like the best high of my life.

By now I’m prostituting and having to sleep with certain people in order to get money—I’ve got regular clients. And then after four or five months, smoking isn’t enough and I start shooting. A gram is like $90, and I’m spending like $400 to $500 a day. Meanwhile I’ve met this wonderful man, my best friend, who is trying to give me a life. We’re just friends. We tried kissing once and it was like kissing my brother. So we’ve been family ever since, and he is the one person throughout my whole life that I trust and love. He gets us an apartment. He doesn’t know I’m on heroin. We get into this fight because I don’t want to admit that I’m an addict. I’m 28 now. I tell him, “I just need a breather, just need to take a walk.” So I walk straight to my dealer’s house, I get what I need, go out on the Strip. And instead of going back to my home with my family, my dogs, this wonderful man, I stay at the dealer’s house.

A couple of nights later I’m on the Strip and I get picked up by a horrible person. He beats the crap out of me, and now I’m no longer able to go home. I either work for this pimp or I die. It happens all the time. They play the part—Oh, I’m a john, I’ll pay you this much. So you get in the car with them, or you go to their hotel room, and now they own you. They don’t let you out of their sight. They strip-search you to make sure you’re not hiding money anywhere, they take all your money, and then they say, “OK, I’ll give you all your drugs. You don’t need to worry about it. You don’t need money.”

All this time, I’ve got him, my friend, and he’s out there looking for me, trying to figure out why I haven’t come back yet. He has to leave to be with his son. So he packs up, he moves. And I’ve lost the one person I’ve ever cared about.

Then one day I make a lot of money. I tell the pimp I’m going to this hotel and I’m up on this floor, and he believes me. Instead I’m like 10 hotels down. I get a weekly motel far away from the neighborhood where I’m at. Because if I run into this pimp, he’ll kill me. So I finally check my emails and I see that my friend has written me, saying, “Just call me, I love you, I miss you, I’m worried about you.” He’s put out missing persons reports. I call him and he says, “Let me come out and get you.” He sends me money. I admit I’m on heroin. He doesn’t know I’m a sex worker.

I finally realized that I’ve got to get out of these drugs. I have to or I’m going to die. One way or another. I’m either going to get raped and murdered by a pimp, or I’m gonna OD. My friend buys me a bus ticket. A couple days later I tell him I’m getting on the bus. He doesn’t believe it. Once the bus leaves, I send him a picture message on the phone and it’s me on the Greyhound bus, and he’s like, “Oh my God.” Eight or 10 hours later I’m here in California. And he’s there waiting for me.

I’m 28, almost 29. My friend takes me to a private methadone clinic in the Tenderloin and pays $200 for it every week. Then I meet my wonderful fiancé, and he tells me about this place, OTOP. So I leave the other clinic and come here. They get me on Medi-Cal within three weeks, so my friend doesn’t have to pay anymore. I have a really wonderful counselor here, Michael, really friendly staff , they’re here to help.

I hate the word junkie. Because I’m not a junkie. You’re not dirty if you’re using drugs. It doesn’t make you a dirty person. Yes, I’m an addict, so I have to work at it every single day, but my goal when I started this was to be two years stable on methadone, and then I will try to open Pandora’s box little by little to work on all the trauma that brought me to this place.

 

Jeff, 38
Current heroin and meth user

It started when I was 10 years old and was hit by a car. That was my introduction to opiates—Demerol and morphine. I had to relearn how to walk. I had eight or nine surgeries and almost lost my leg. By the time I was 14, I was addicted to those drugs.

I still have chronic pain. I’ve had it my whole life. I had nerve damage throughout my body. At a certain point the doctors stopped prescribing the drugs, so I graduated to other drugs through trial and error. I was searching for something for the pain, and I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Heroin was the next-best thing, and it turned out it was a better thing, because it was more potent than morphine.

I went for a couple of years without using a needle. Once I used a needle, everything changed. It all became a lot more serious. It’s a job [laughs]. I had to be careful both about OD’ing and getting a disease from a needle. Because my mom—she’s a nurse practitioner, pretty much a doctor—my mom is like the rock of my life. There’s no way in the world I could ever let her down. So I had to be seriously dedicated to keeping myself healthy while still being strung out on drugs.

I came down here in 2008 after living in Portland and working as a bike messenger for a while. I make my living in mischievous ways. I don’t want to talk about it. It’s kind of personal and incriminating. 

I was homeless for a couple of years. I moved around, didn’t stay in one area. Now I live in the Tenderloin. I volunteer at a place and they also give me room and board. I’ve been here about six months. I can shoot up where I’m living. It’s a lot safer and I’m not subjected to the dangers of the streets. For a little while, anyway.

 

Gary McCoy, 39
City employee; appointed to the California Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council; former methamphetamine user

I started doing heroin in my teenage years, 16 to 19. I was hanging out with older guys and started snorting on weekends, trying to fit in and be cool. It was as recreational as it gets at first, just snorting. I started to inject around the time I dropped out of high school, in my senior year. I got strung out within weeks and started stealing from my family, my grandparents. I did a lot of shameful things.

I was in a relationship with a guy in Virginia who wanted to clean up and had relatives in Visalia. So I came to San Francisco while he went there. I was about 21 and was sober for the first month or two, working for a radio station. Then I met somebody one night, we shot meth immediately and had sex. This was new to me at the time—I didn’t mingle sex and drugs when I was younger, and sex isn’t prevalent with heroin anyway. But within a month or two I was using every other day—probably less than a quarter gram in one injection, two or three times a day.

In about 2002, I found out I was HIV positive, and after I was diagnosed with HIV I stopped seeing my doctor. I ignored that I had it. For a few years I was asymptomatic and kept the same level of meth use. I was a maintenance user, using about $100 worth a day, sometimes more. It was completely commingled with sex for me. I’d do it in the morning when I woke up to get me going. And then for the rest of the day, it was about finding more sex and finding more meth.

I ran the streets with a bunch of kids my age, 18 to 24. We were all homeless and using and trying to figure out how to support our habit. Living wherever, whether it be with older men, or in elevator shafts, or behind the bushes at 18th and Collingwood. The priorities for me at that age were: where can I get my first hit for the day, who can sustain me for the rest of the day, and whose place can I stay at tonight.

Me and my partner always talked about getting sober, but we always found a way to justify that it wasn’t the right time. And one day, it was December 2010, he said, “I’m going into a program tomorrow. I’m done. I love you, but this is what I have to do.” I didn’t believe him. The next morning his stuff was packed, he had his suitcase ready to go, he did one last hit and hopped in a cab and went. And for the first week after that I thought, Screw it, I’m just gonna do whatever I want. I got high, hung out with a good friend of mine, Rob, who was also a maintenance user. Eventually Rob says, “Have you ever thought about trying a program yourself?” And it’s bad when a friend who’s a user himself suggests that maybe you should get sober.

So I made a phone call to my caseworker at Ward 86 [an S.F. General HIV clinic]. She said, “OK, we’ll try to get you into Ferguson Place.” [Ferguson Place, run by Positive Resource Center, is a residential treatment center that has a triple-diagnosis program for people with HIV/AIDS, mental health issues, and substance abuse disorder.] My goal was to stay sober for 30 days so I could start taking my meds again. I knew I was gonna die if I didn’t start taking my meds. When I finally got sober in 2011, I had four T-cells [a healthy person has 200] and weighed 110 pounds.

To be honest, I didn’t want to die because I wanted to keep using. The drive was to continue to use, not so much to live. That was the plan. Thirty days in, I took off. I left the Ferguson house to go hang out with two friends I used to hook up with. We were going to have sex and I was going to go back to [Ferguson] house. It didn’t work out that way. I ended up getting high with them, they started arguing over something, and I took off and left their house. I went to the baths, nobody was there. Nothing I had planned on happening that night happened. It was miserable. I felt like I’d wasted my relapse. Sex didn’t happen, I didn’t get to party. And then I got a call from the overnight counselor at Ferguson and he said, “You know, you have a window of opportunity right now to take advantage of, and the longer you’re gone, the smaller that window is going to get.” And for whatever reason, that clicked. I immediately went to BART, I think I got there at 5 a.m., and sat there and waited for the first train. I went straight back to Ferguson, and I’ve been sober since.

That night my goal immediately changed. I realized I was done. I see people who have struggled all the time with sobriety, in and out, and then it just takes one thing happening. For me it was that one funny night when everything went to shit. That was February 23, 2011, my sobriety date, the last time I used.

 

Frank, 38
Homeless heroin and meth user

Since I came here in 2013, I’ve been homeless. I’ve never tried to get on a list for housing. I’m such a procrastinator, it would take me years just to get started. I crash over in an area by Church and Market and by Octavia Street. I wouldn’t sleep over by the library, it’s too violent. I had a friend who was just sitting there and somebody came up and kicked him in the face. A guy slashed a girl’s back with a box cutter, cut her two feet down her back, and ran off laughing and saying, “White devil.”

My game plan now is to get on Suboxone [an opioid treatment medication]. I don’t want to see a doctor or be in a program. In a week to two weeks, I could lower my usage, become a weekend warrior. I’ve done it before. Then I could save all the money I’m now spending on dope. I could put up $100 a day panhandling. My teeth are all fucked up, and I could get dental implants within a year or two, or I could buy a car and make a move. Maybe fly back home to Milwaukee and see my mom. I could go do something for myself. Right now I just spend my days hustling money, buying dope, hustling money, buying dope. I have no time to do anything else. Right now after I talk to you, I gotta go hustle up more money. This is cutting into my time, but whatever.

On my way here to San Francisco, my buddy and I had a little bit of heroin. We ran out the first day into the trip. We had a couple of Suboxones; we took them when we got here. Then after a couple of months, I was in so much pain. I was about to get on methadone, and I said, “I need something.” I started teeter-tottering, walking that fine line, and then I became dependent again. For a while I could do it one day a week and be in control and not have it be a dependency. If I could get to that place again, it’d be great. There are people who do it Friday night, they spend $10 and get fully annihilated and they don’t do it again and don’t become addicted. You could still have a life.

That lasts for a week. Then you wake up one morning and you just don’t feel right. Then you do a dose and you feel absolutely fine. I never knew what addiction was. I never knew what dependency was. All of a sudden you find out what that is real quick. You feel like you’re terminally ill with cancer.

One of my best friends was a big marijuana dealer back in Wisconsin. He had a lot of money and he used the money to buy a lot of OxyContin. Finally he blew his brains out. He couldn’t deal with the addiction, constantly chasing it, not having anything. He couldn’t take that constant doing it over and over again. Getting well, then getting drugs, then the drugs are gone, then do it again. One time we had a suicide pact. We were both going to shoot ourselves in the head. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave my brother like that, my mother like that.

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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